In the summer of 1910, British explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott departed from London on a steamship headed for Antarctica, where he and the men of the Terra Nova Expedition were to become the first team to reach the South Pole. By March of 1912, Scott – along with the four men under his command – was dead, defeated by the elements a mere 200 miles short of his goal.
Now, more than a century later, explorer Ben Saunders and fellow Brit Tarka L’Herpiniere, have set out to retrace Scott’s steps and accomplish what the Terra Nova crew died attempting. If all goes according to plan, they will complete the 1,800-mile trek from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back, on foot, without the assistance of dogs or anybody else. It’s a dangerous proposition, but Saunders wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a vast continent – the coldest, windiest, driest, highest-altitude place on Earth. It’s a land of extremes in every sense,” he told ‘Men’s Journal’ shortly before setting out on the journey at the beginning of November. And those extremes are just part of the puzzle. The other challenge is a test of physical endurance and strength. Saunders and L’Herpiniere will hike and ski the equivalent of 70 consecutive marathons during a tight, nonnegotiable 110-day window while pulling 440-pound sleds. Completing such a gauntlet of ragged, physical punishment will be a heroic feat on a frozen polar tundra, But Saunders insists he’s in a better position to pull it off than Scott ever was.
“Given everything we’ve learned in the last century, from material technology, nutrition, fitness, training, GPS, communications, solar power, all those things, how come, given all this innovation, all these advantages, this journey just simply has not been bettered?” Saunders asks rhetorically – as though the whole thing would be easy now that we have Clif Bars. “How come this journey hasn’t been finished yet?”
The Scott Expedition is both Saunders’s answer to his own questions and the culmination of an already impressive career in exploration. After becoming the third person to ski solo to the North Pole in 2004, Saunders set a record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton. While the 36-year-old recognizes that the trek to the South Pole is by far his biggest undertaking to date, he remains mostly unfazed by the scale, falling back on an unwavering faith in his experience and training.
“This is my 11th big mission,” he says. “I’ve spent more than 300 nights in a tent. I’m at a point where this is a viable undertaking.”
Despite Saunders’s deep résumé and modern training regimen, there’s still no guarantee of success. After all, there’s a reason why no one has been able to finish what Captain Scott started in the hundred years since his failed attempt at immortality. And while Saunders and L’Herpiniere will be re-creating Scott’s exact expedition as best they can, they have the advantage of at least one glaring difference – thanks to a state-of-the-art computer and a satellite phone network provided by Intel, the duo are reporting back on their progress, writing blog posts and sending pictures along the way.
This – as much as the chance to make history – thrills Saunders. “As a kid, I used to love reading dusty library books about explorers. So I love the fact that this time we can tell the story in real time. People can follow along, they can interact, they can ask us questions. So I’m really excited about that,” he says. “And, you know, not knowing where the story might end is exciting as well.” [Follow Ben Saunders at scottexpedition.com]